Enteric methane (CH4) emissions from ruminants have compelled a wide range of research initiatives to identify environmental abatement opportunities. However, although such mitigations can theoretically be attained with feed additives and feeding strategies, the limited empirical evidence on plant extracts used as feed additives does not support extensive or long-term reductions. Nevertheless, their strategic use (i.e. alone or combined in a simultaneous or consecutive use) may provide not only acceptable CH4 abatement levels, but also relevant effects on animal physiology and productivity. Condensed tannins (CT) represent a range of polyphenolic compounds of flavan-3-ol units present in some forage species that can also be added to prepared diets. Methods to determine CT, or their conjugated metabolites, are not simple. Although there are limitations and uncertainties about the methods to be applied, CT are thought to reduce CH4 production (1) indirectly by binding to the dietary fibre and/or reducing the rumen digestion and digestibility of the fibre and (2) directly by inhibiting the growth of rumen methanogens. On the basis of their role in livestock nutrition, CT influence the digestion of protein in the rumen because of their affinity for proteins (e.g. oxidative coupling and H bonding at neutral pH) that causes the CT-protein complex to be insoluble in the rumen; and dissociate in the abomasum at pH 2.5 to 3.0 for proteolysis and absorption in the small intestine. CT may also reduce gastro-intestinal parasite burdens and improve reproductive performance, foetal development, immune system response, hormone serum concentrations, wool production and lactation. The objectives of this paper are to discuss some of the beneficial and detrimental effects of CT on ruminant production systems and to develop a conceptual model to illustrate these metabolic relationships in terms of systemic physiology using earlier investigations with the CT-containing legume Lotus corniculatus. Our conceptual model indicated four complex and long-lasting relationships (digestive, toxicological, physiological and morphological) that can alter the normal biology of the animal. These relationships are interdependent, integrative, and sometimes, complementary to each other. This conceptual model can be used to develop mechanistic models to improve the understanding of the interaction between CT and the ruminants as well as to guide research initiatives of the impact of polyphenol-rich foods on human health.